Dog's dinner: Schwarzenegger as John "Breacher" Wharton.
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Why is Arnold Schwarzenegger still allowed to make films? David Ayer's Sabotage

Schwarzenegger's mere presence causes the plausibility of a scene to drop by 75 per cent - so it's a mystery why a capable director like David Ayer would cast him in his latest pulpy thriller.

Sabotage (15)
dir: David Ayer

More than 40 years into his performing career, Arnold Schwarzenegger looks as confused as the rest of us about how he got where he is. He can’t act. He has only basic stirrings of comic awareness. He suggests no particular quality other than immovability. He is 66, his body no longer a “brown condom stuffed with walnuts”, as Clive James put it, and more like a varnished sideboard with veins. His mere presence causes the plausibility of a scene to drop instantly by 75 per cent. This becomes 90 per cent should he be called on to say anything.

None of which mattered in the 1980s when he was galumphing through cheerfully coarse action movies, ruining the pattern only occasionally by being skilful in something perfect such as The Terminator. His latest film, Sabotage, is more troublesome. It has a lively, even witty, screenplay by its director, David Ayer, who is a pedlar of high-gloss pulp (Training Day, Street Kings). In casting Schwarzenegger in a demanding role, though, he overreaches himself. He may have been hoping for the sort of gentle revelation seen in James Mangold’s Cop Land, in which Sylvester Stallone played a hearing-impaired small-town sheriff. But Stallone had always possessed reserves of pathos unavailable to his Austrian rival. This is not to disparage Schwarzenegger: ask the family pooch to cook steak au poivre and it would be cruel to punish the poor creature for its inability to do so. Schwarzenegger is that dog and Sabotage is dinner.

He plays John “Breacher” Wharton, a big deal in the Drug Enforcement Administration. Eight months earlier, John’s wife was killed by a Mexican cartel. They sent pieces of her to John’s home every day for a fortnight. How cruel is that? If you’re not in to sign for those packages, you’ve got to ask a neighbour to do it, or arrange redelivery, or even schlep down to the post office depot.

These days, John heads an undercover special ops team in which everyone has nicknames. There’s Pyro (Max Martini), so called because he once blew up a drugs lab. Monster (Sam Worthington) is a psycho. Grinder (Joe Manganiello) presumably specialises in sending pictures of his junk to any men within a 500-metre radius.

This mob is a mishmash of muscles, cornrows, tattoos and bandanas, with one female member, Lizzy (Mireille Enos), who is even more macho than the rest. The trouble is, someone has started picking off the team in sadistic ways. One member has his Winnebago dragged on to train tracks while he’s in it and another is nailed to the ceiling, though a harsher punishment might have been to confiscate their steroids or impose a lifetime ban on the attendance of lap-dancing clubs. It’s up to the short-haired, power-dressing detective Caroline Brentwood (Olivia Williams) to find out who has it in for them. If she can deliver some snappy put-downs in the process, so much the better.

Williams is the best thing in Sabotage by some distance. In one scene, she has to swim in her pool at night, only to be surprised when Schwarzenegger appears, brandishing a bottle of Gnarly Head (possibly the only brand of wine to be named after him). Williams is naked, taken aback and forced to crane her neck to peer up at her co-star – and still gains the upper hand in the deadpan way she says: “This isn’t creepy.”

Ayer has also introduced a note of mystery into her character, inadvertently or otherwise, by placing on her office desk framed photographs of a baby while making no reference to motherhood in the script. Caroline lives alone. Is the child dead? Did she lose a custody battle? Has she been snipping pictures out of Parenting magazine as part of some crazed fantasy life? We never find out. At least it provides a distraction from the whizzing bullets and extreme gore, not to mention the mild anxiety induced every time Schwarzenegger is required to imitate an actual human emotion without giving himself a hernia.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, India's worst nightmare?

KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism